The fire was intense. It stung my eyes and singed my hair. I thought I was going to die, locked in a school I never wanted to be a part of, but will make me a part of it forever. I can feel the flames creeping up my legs, burning, melting, killing. My feet, my ugly broken dancer’s feet, black, gone. My hands touch a wall. My hands will never play piano or paint again. I was gone.
Then, I wasn’t. Something heavy was thrown on me. I was grabbed. A mask, hands, there was a stomping of boots. I passed out as blurry flames danced in front of me.
“Will she be OK?”
“… Severely burned, lucky to be..”
Red, white and blue flames dance with the orange to the sound of mechanical screams.
I’m laying down, floating, stinging, still burning. My eyes open. Two people leaning over me. Masks on, mask on me. Breathing ragged.
“She’s awake! Hit the gas, gotta get there before she starts feeling this!” Pounding, more screams, my own. Muscles stiff and sluggish. So much burning. No more dancing.
Time passed, screams stopped. Pain receded, still burning.
“Sweetie, I’m Doctor Hopkins, I’m going to take care of you. Don’t try to speak. There’s going to be a lot more pain before it gets better, but you have to trust me. Blink once if you understand.” I blinked. “Get her to the ICU, don’t try to take her clothes off unless they are still loose from the skin. I’ll be up in one minute.” I want to thank him, I want my mom.
The nurse took my shirt and bra off easily, only getting stuck on my hands. My shoes were gone. My pants were stuck, she tried not to show her distress. My stomach was black with soot, red with melted skin, Dr. Hopkins arrived.
“Remember what I said, this is going to hurt but we have to clean your burns. This is only water.” They left my jeans on. The water hit my skin, cool and comforting before turning into sharp, clear bullets slicing my skin. I ground my teeth until I couldn’t.
Screams and bullets and steam filled the air.
Screams and bullets.
I open my eyes, disoriented, I didn’t see my lime green wall, an off white one with windows in its place. My photo wall and old ballet shoes were also nowhere in sight. I feel exhausted, but as I close my eyes to sleep, the door opens.
“Officer, I know you have questions for her, but she is barely four hours out of a horrible experience and needs all the rest she can get if she’s to heal properly.”
“Doctor, may I remind you someone burned down the school? We need answers and she is a witness.”
“She can’t even speak!” Two voices, one was familiar, the one addressed as Doctor.
I’m in the hospital. I was in the school when it caught on fire. I was on fire. Images rush, the flames, the bath, screams. The doctor talking to me. I’m alive.
“I want to talk,” a gravelly voice said, was that me?
Both men look up, as if just seeing I’m awake. The doctor looks concerned. The policeman looked pleased, thin and bony, showing a pointy-toothed grin. He gestured into the hall. A short chubby man with a kind face appeared in the door, he smiled in a sympathetic way.
“Well, first things first,” the doctor began. “What is your name? I’m going to contact your parents, I bet they are worried sick.”
“Kristen Piper” I rasped. “My mom is Maddison Piper,” I gave him her cell phone number.
“If I can’t get in touch with her, is your father available to call?” I shook my head no. “OK, if you need anything, press the call button.” I was left with the scary man and his sweet counterpart.
“My name is Detective Smith,” the scary man said. “And this is my partner, Detective Jones. Can you tell us about last night, Kristen?”
“Take your time,” Detective Jones added.
“My day started off normal: school, lunch, homework,” I paused. This hurt my lungs. “I went home, ate a snack and started homework. I realized I forgot my biology notes and I had to finish typing a lab write-up. I texted my mom to let her know where I was going and headed back to school.”
“How did you know the school would be open?” Detective Smith asked, already blaming me for the fire.
“There was a late basketball practice last night. The players were leaving when I was walking up the stairs.” I gave him the best glare I could. “I went inside, passed some kids doing a lab —”
“You didn’t find it strange that students were working so late?” He interrupted again.
“It was only about 5 and Mrs. Kelly has students catch up after school sometimes.”
“Did you see Mrs. Kelly?”
“No, but she doesn’t have to be in the lab the entire time. She never is during class.” I hoped I wasn’t getting her in trouble.
“Continue, Kristen,” Detective Jones smiled at me.
“Well, I went to my locker, got my notes. I bumped into my history teacher on my way out, and he reminded me I had a project to work on, so I was on my way back to my locker when I started feeling the heat.” My voice was fading, I pressed the call button with my thickly bandaged hands, and my doctor came rushing in.
“I think that’s enough for now, detectives.” They grudgingly agreed, they got up and left, but not before Jones left his business card on my table.
“Thanks,” I tried to say, but nothing came out.
As he poured, the doctor said, “I called your mom. She was worried sick, and she’s on her way, maybe five more minutes.” He handed me the water with a straw, “Don’t gulp, small sips.” I tried, but I was so thirsty, I tried a bigger sip and choked.
When my coughing was under control, my mom walked in the room. Her face was tear-stained, her hair was a mess and she was still wearing her scrubs from work, even though she got off at 7 the night before. She started tearing up when she saw me.
“Is she OK, Dr. Hopkins?” That was his name!
“Well, Mrs. Piper, as I said on the phone, she suffered severe burns to her legs and hands. From breathing in smoke and the chemicals used to start the fire, her lungs and throat are damaged.” Dr. Hopkins said. “The burns should heal nicely — we cleaned them thoroughly and quickly.” He looked at me. “Do you remember that?”
“I remember you leaning over me, but I don’t know what you said, and I remember feeling like I was being shot.” Dr. Hopkins was nodding his head in approval.
“Normal? How is losing a chunk of memory normal? Why was she being shot?! What is wrong with her voice?” My mother was hysterical.
“It was a traumatic situation. Our brains block them out as a way of healing, it is normal. She was given a cold-water treatment like all burn victims, but to hurt skin, it will feel awful — though I have never heard bullets. Her voice is like that because her lungs are singed, and she was screaming.” He looked at me again. “It’s all normal.” He pressed the button to call the nurse’s station and the nurse appeared. “Will you re-dress Kristen’s wounds and get her something to eat while I speak to her mother?” He held the door for my mom.
“I’m so happy you’re okay sweetie. I’ll be right back.” She kissed my forehead, and it stung.